Endurance Racing News and Stories

Le Mans preview, part 3: Hypercar, a battle for the ages

Phil Oakley

If last year’s Le Mans was an instant classic, 2024 is hotting up to be even better.

Assuming every entered Hypercar makes the start of the race, there’ll be 23 top class cars from nine manufacturers attempting to win one of the world’s biggest motor races. That’s 3 more cars than compete in any F1 race — and that’s only one of the classes in this year’s French endurance classic, out of three.

It’s fair to say, out of the nine manufacturers in Hypercar, the top contenders are Ferrari, Porsche, and Toyota.

Porsche look to be in a very good place coming into Le Mans. The factory Penske-run effort, the #6 car, won in Qatar, the first win for an LMDh-rules car in the FIA World Endurance Championship. The sister #6 car was second at Imola with Kevin Estre chasing down Toyota’s Kamui Kobayashi at the end of the race but not managing to make the overtake. 

Porsche's win in Qatar was the first LMDh win in WEC. Image: Michele Scudiero / Drew Gibson Photography

And then Porsche customer JOTA took their first ever overall race win at Spa, benefitting from the red flag to claim the win, with the #6 car again finishing second after Callum Ilott pulled away from Estre in the final hour and 40 minutes.

Contrary to popular belief, that Ferrari were the fastest team at Spa, the German manufacturer also had the fastest car on average at the iconic Belgium track. Our analysis showed the #5, #12, #99, and #6 were the four quickest cars when looking at the top 20% lap average over the race. 

A quick note, too, on Porsche’s customer cars from JOTA and Proton. Both have proved to be quick this year, with JOTA scoring a podium in Qatar and the team’s first overall win at Spa. Proton, too, were quick at Spa, with Neel Jani telling The Racing Line after the race that he felt they could have been on the podium at least if it weren’t for the red flag.

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“Who knows, what would have happened in the lower temperature?” said the Swiss driver.

“Maybe we could have come back again. But yeah, the podium was ours for sure.”

And when asked about the win, the 40-yeat-old was similarly optimistic.

“I think we had a shot at it for sure. I mean we were there. Would we have won? I don't know. But, for sure, finished third. That is clear. It would have been between us and the Ferraris.”

Ferrari, on the other hand, are frustrated to say the least with their season so far. The storied Italian team hasn’t won a WEC race in 2024, and in fact hasn’t won since Le Mans last year. Giuliano Salvi, Ferrari’s race & testing manager, summed it up well after Imola.

Le Mans last year is the only time the 499P has won a race so far. Image: Focus Pack Media

“We are the same group that won Le Mans as beginners last year. Then we were hero, now we are zero,” he said after the team’s double strategy blunder, in not pitting when it began to rain at Imola, plus not splitting the cars to get the best outcome for at least one of the three Ferraris in the race.

At Qatar all three Ferraris didn’t have the pace to win, although the ‘customer’ #83 AF Corse Ferrari of Robert Kubica, Robert Shwartzman and Yifei Ye did finish fourth. The factory Ferraris, however, were beset by issues and finished two and three laps down respectively.

In Italy, Ferrari had by far the strongest pace, qualifying 1-2-3 and leading for the first half of the race. However, the aforementioned double strategy blunder undid all the hard work and they eventually finished fourth, seventh and eighth, in a disappointing day for the Scuderia on home soil.

Finally, in Spa, the Ferraris were also quick. Antonio Fuoco put the #50 on pole for the second time in a row, but was disqualified for a technical infringement after qualifying. They raced back into contention but the red flag luck didn’t fall their way, as they had to pit for emergency service under the safety car and then again for full service once the race went green again, destroying any chances of a win, with the two factory cars third and fourth.

Ferrar were in the hunt seat for the win at Spa, until the red flag. Image: Julien Delfosse / DPPI

Nevertheless, count Ferrari out at Le Mans at your peril. The 499P is an incredibly strong car, despite its weakness being chewing through tyres faster than its rivals, and Ferrari AF Corse know how to win this race, having won last year overall and many times in the GT categories. 

Plus, with three cars — the ‘customer’ car is run by AF Corse, the same team that runs the factory cars, albeit with different personnel — they have options on strategy, as long as they don’t make the same mistake they did in Imola.

And they we come to Toyota. The Japanese-German team is a bit of an enigma. After dominating last year, winning all but one race — the most important one — they’ve somewhat struggled this year as their rivals have picked up the pace compared to 2023. 

Like Ferrari, they were off the pace in Qatar, for reasons even the team doesn’t understand, at least publicly. 

They won in Imola, but this came as a surprise. They didn’t expect to win and believed Porsche and certainly Ferrari were ahead of them on pace. The race was won on strategy, no doubt — but that’s what experience gets you.

Toyota won in Imola through strategy. Image: Julien Delfosse / DPPI

And Spa was a mismatch, not having the pace to win but in a no-mans-land between Ferrari and Porsche at the front and the ‘best of the rest’ behind.

The problem Toyota have got is they only have two cars, both for the full season and at Le Mans. We saw last year, with Kamui Kobayashi’s strange night time incident with the #35 Alpine and the #66 JMW Ferrari, if you have two cars and one is taken out, you’re left with a single bullet in the gun.

The team haven’t ‘fixed’ this inherent problem with the programme, like Ferrari have with the ‘customer’ car. Toyota’s other weakness is struggling with tyre warmup, which may bite them in the night at Le Mans, when the air and track temperature drops. They insist Ferrari and Porsche have ‘found something’ — which the latter both deny — but there’s no doubting that it may be an issue in a 24 hour race with inevitable darkness, as well as in qualifying. 

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It’s worth noting that Toyota did struggle somewhat with tyre warmup last year, although this was masked by everyone else struggling too. But at Le Mans tyre warmers were brought back for one round only — a luxury they don’t have this year. It may be one of the key stories of the race.

Looking further down the grid, Cadillac have had a difficult, troublesome year. They finished fourth on the road at Qatar but then were disqualified weeks later, just before Imola, for the strakes on their diffuser being slightly out of tolerance compared to the CAD files they provide the FIA and ACO with. While both organisations admitted the tolerance levels were so small that it wouldn’t have had any performance advantage, rules are rules.

Imola the team lacked outright pace, the reasons for which both Alex Lynn and Earl Bamber were unclear on when The Racing Line spoke to them at Spa.

“[At] Imola we really, we really struggled,” said Bamber.

“We had a test there last year, which we were quite good and we just couldn't manage to replicate the same car performance as what we had there.

“It was a difficult weekend. In the wet was great, but in the dry was not so great, so hopefully we can get back on track here,” he finished.

Cadillac were running well at Spa — until Bamber's crash. Image: Javier Jimenez / DPPI

And, when asked why this was, Bamber wasn’t sure. “If why we knew why, it’d be a great answer,” he joked.

At Spa, the team were running well, in fourth place with an hour and 50 minutes to go. Bamber’s incident with Sean Galael, while attempting to pass Neel Jani in the #99 Proton Porsche, then took both Galael’s BMW GT3 and the Cadillac out of the race.

So, with a DSQ from Qatar, a 10th place at Imola scoring a single point, and a DNF at Spa, Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing will be hoping for substantially better in France.

Luckily, the manufacturer is bringing over both IMSA Sportscar Championship cars, the yellow #01 machine run by Chip Ganassi Racing, and the red #31, re-numbered the #311 at Le Mans, run by Action Express Racing. The former will have IMSA regular Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande behind the wheel, joined by two-time and reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou. The AXR car will have Pipo Derani, Jack Aitken, and Hypercar newbie Felipe Drugovich onboard.

Last year the AXR car was taken out of running on the first lap by Aitken’s crash at the first chicane, so Cadillac will be hoping for better this year. The AXR car also tends to be stronger in IMSA generally than the Chip Ganassi machine, so it will be interesting to track that through the race. Cadillac’s WEC results this year don’t do the team justice to how quick the car is.

Aitken crashed on the first lap at Le Mans last year. Image: Focus Pack Media

We then come to the WEC new boys — Alpine, BMW, Lamborghini, and Isotta Fraschini.

Both Alpine and BMW have performed well in their first three races with their new cars. That said, the BMW isn’t strictly new — it had raced in IMSA for a year with the Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan team, BMW’s chosen team partner, before WRT began racing it this year. 

The German squad have so far scored a best result of sixth, at Imola with the #20 car of Sheldon van der Linde, Rene Rast and Robin Frijns. They were unfortunately out of the points at Spa, in 11th, somewhat lacking pace at WRT’s home race in Belgium. At Qatar, they took home tenth after Cadillac’s disqualification bumped them up into the top 10.

So, they’ll be hoping to build on those results with a strong run at Le Mans. The team has a strong driver line up, with Dries Vanthoor, Marco Wittmann, and Raffaele Marciello in the other car, so a good result is certainly possible.

Alpine’s best result so far was seventh at Qatar, with the #35 of Paul Loup Chatin, Ferdinand Habsburg and Charles Milesi being the first ‘new team’ to take home points, in the A424’s debut race.

The French squad struggled significantly at Imola, finishing 13th and 16th, never really in contention for points. And at Spa, the #35 — with the exception of Ferdinand Habsburg, who suffered a back injury in testing before Imola, and was replaced by reserve driver Jules Gounon — finished ninth, taking home more points.

Alpine's first year with the A424 has resulted in a best of seventh so far. Image: Javier Jimenez / DPPI

However, while Alpine haven’t scored the best individual result when compared to BMW, they do have two more points than the German manufacturer — 23 to BMW’s 21. Le Mans will be a titanic battle between the two, then, with both hoping to move further up the grid and challenge the Ferraris, Toyotas, and Porsches.

Then we come to Lamborghini. With a 13th place at Qatar, 12th at Imola, and a DNF at Spa, it’s probably fair to say the year hasn’t gone to plan for the Italian manufacturer and their partner team Iron Lynx. They’ve struggled for pace and consistency, while having better Balance of Performance figures than Alpine and BMW, not to mention Porsche, for Imola and Spa.

Part of this may be due to Lamborghini, while very experienced in GT racing, not having much experience at all racing prototypes. The chassis manufacturer for the LMDh-rules car is Ligier, which no other manufacturer has picked, so this may be another factor. Iron Lynx is also relatively inexperienced in running prototypes, although they do have support from Prema, with being teams being owned by DC Racing Solutions.

Lamborghini have struggled somewhat so far in Hypercar. Image: Javier Jimenez / DPPI

They’ll have two cars at Le Mans, with the IMSA-entered car, which only competes in the Endurance Cup rounds, coming over to race in France. This car will be crewed by Andrea Caldarelli, who raced at Spa, replacing Edo Mortara, who prioritised his Formula E commitments that weekend; Romain Grosjean, the former F1 driver and current IndyCar racer; and Matteo Cairoli, who until last year was in a long term relationship with Porsche.

Lamborghini and Alpine’s big tests will be racing for 24 hours straight. While both have done 30-hour endurance tests, racing is a completely different ballgame and one which will test the SC63 and A424 to the limit.

Peugeot’s new 9X8 is a brand new car, with the vast majority of parts being brand new and not featuring on the ‘old’ 9X8. With that in mind it’s hard really to say how Peugeot will fare at Le Mans. While teams aren’t allowed to publicly talk about BoP, either positively or negatively, Peugeot have implied fairly heavily in both Imola and Spa that the BoP they have received has not, in their minds, been fair or favourable. 

Last year the old 9X8 was relatively competitive at Le Mans, even leading for significant periods of time. With the new 9X8 having better balance and more driveability according to every Peugeot driver The Racing Line has spoken to, it’ll be interesting to see how it goes at Le Mans.

Finally, then, we come to Isotta Fraschini. The only ‘boutique’ manufacturer in the Hypercar class after Glickenhaus and Vanwall didn’t return in 2024, it’s fair to say the Italian team has struggled this year. But, it’s not without some positives. While the team’s two silver-rated drivers, Carl Wattana Bennett and Antonio Sarravalle, have saome improving to do, Jean-Karl Vernay has shown the car does have some decent pace and consistency. 

Isotta Fraschini were only three laps down at Spa. Image: Javier Jimenez / DPPI

And, apart from a DNF in the car’s debut at Qatar, it’s been reliable, finishing in both Imola and Spa. They were only 3 laps down at the conclusion of the race in Belgium, too — by far their best result. Of course, the big challenge is yet to come, in France, and with only one car, if they crash or breakdown early on, that’s it. They’ll be hoping just to finish, which as other similar teams ave said in the past, can feel like a win.

It's often said you don't win Le Mans; instead, Le Mans chooses the winner. With that in mind it's basically impossible to pick a winner in most years, let alone when there are 23 in the top class and any number of them could win.

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